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The Yankees shouldn’t hand Gio Gonzalez a spot in the rotation just yet

Gio Gonzalez is a nice addition, but rushing him to the Bronx could be a mistake.

League Championship Series - Milwaukee Brewers v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

With Luis Severino now out until May, the Yankees signed Gio Gonzalez in an attempt to insure their starting rotation. It’s hard to knock a minor-league signing, at the least from the team’s perspective, and this deal is no exception. Gonzalez has been a legitimate rotation option for nearly a decade and is set to make less money than the Yankees paid to Chris Capuano four years ago. There’s virtually no risk in a deal like this. However, the reward might be limited as well.

The low upside of this deal stems from the fact that Gonzalez might never even get to contribute to the big-league club. Right now, it is believed Gonzalez won’t be ready for game action until mid-April. On top of that, he has an opt-out clause in his contract that allows him to become a free agent on April 20th, giving him one month to get ready. If Gonzalez has even a slight delay in his progress towards game action, it could spell the end of his time with the Yankees.

Even without any hypothetical setbacks, one month might not be long enough. Just last year, we saw a wealth of pitchers who signed late in the offseason go on to get absolutely crushed in their first 2018 outings. Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Greg Holland, and Yu Darvish all signed in February or March, and with the exception of Arrietia, they were awful to begin the 2018 season. Here’s a quick snapshot of the data:

Late Pitching Additions, 2018

Name Date Signed ERA after 1 month or 25 innings
Name Date Signed ERA after 1 month or 25 innings
Alex Cobb 3/21/2018 13.11
Jake Arrieta 3/12/2018 3.49
Lance Lynn 3/12/2018 8.37
Yu Darvish 2/13/18 5.26
Greg Holland 3/31/2018 7.92

The Yankees’ season begins next week, and they’re likely going to need all five of their starters right out of the gate. If the logic from the above graph continues to ring true in 2019, it could be a mistake to rush Gonzalez to the Bronx before he’s ready. According to Michael Kay on yesterday’s game broadcast, Gonzalez has been throwing sim games this spring, but that isn’t quite the same as game experience. Getting him in front of high-quality hitters as soon as possible is imperative if he’s going to have a place on the roster. If the April 20th deadline comes before a promotion, Gonzalez could find himself on another team before he makes it to the Bronx.

The other factor that could keep Gonzalez from netting the Yankees some kind of reward out of this deal is tied to performance. Given the timing of the deal, I think it’s much more realistic Gonzalez is seen as more of an insurance piece than a legitimate rotation candidate. Still, let’s entertain the possibility Gonzalez does make it to the Yankees’ rotation.

Over the past two years, there has been some noticeable decline in Gonzalez’s performance, as Jake noted earlier today. Last season saw Gonzalez put up a career worst mark in K-BB%. He’s also seen a steady increase in his FIP since 2014, meaning there’s been a long-running negative trend in walks, strikeouts, and homers for the last four seasons.

Hitters seem to be catching up to Gonzalez’s stuff. In 2018, he saw increases in medium and hard contact across the board. Hitters also began squaring his curveball more than they ever had before. The Barrel% on Gonzalez’s curveball more than tripled from 2017 to 2018. Putting Gio Gonzalez into a hitter’s park in a tough division might not mix extremely well.

Several projection systems have Gonzalez continuing his decline in 2019 but still peg him as a league-average hurler. For example, ZiPS projects Gonzalez at 1.6 fWAR and 4.38 ERA with around 160 innings pitched. This is a solid statline! It’s not great, but it’s more than respectable from a back-of-the-rotation arm.

The only real “problem” with all this is that the Yankees already have three guys who could potentially produce just as much as Gonzalez. ZiPS projects Luis Cessa, Domingo German, and Jonathan Loaisiga to put up similar numbers this season. Those three have already had 5 weeks of full preseason action to prepare for the season. Loaisiga has struggled with command a little so far, but for the most part, these guys have all impressed in camp. Cessa and German have unquestionably pitched themselves onto the major-league club and likely the rotation.

Granted, there might still be some growing pains to go through with those three pitchers, but their potential struggles are just as big a question mark as Gonzalez’s decline. It might happen in leaps and bounds, or not at all. With that, German, Cessa, and Loaisiga should still be ahead of Gio Gonzalez on the depth chart right now, at least for now. Gonzalez has had a great career to this point, but he’s best viewed as an insurance piece in the coming weeks. If the Yankees have the ability and need to call on Gonzalez in a month’s time, then there might be some rewards to reap, but until then, Gonzalez is simply a nice depth move.